As I take my more frequent strolls around the tranquil streets of my neighbourhood during lockdown, I notice small details about the houses, the architecture, a tree or a sign that has passed unchecked before. Life in the time of a pandemic has thrown up so many questions: existential, personal and of course practical. But, once you’ve tussled with the bizarre day-to-day quandaries of finding ways to use all the ingredients in the fridge or negotiating a successful Zoom conversation with three generations of your family, the really important questions still remain. As a musician or any creative person, it is very easy to feel defined by what we do. What do we do when that is suddenly taken away? Who are we really? Who were we before all this? ‘Time’ has opened up for questions that have been revealing and provoking.
I used to joke with a friend about being in search of the ‘Second Simplicity’: the idea of expression being distilled down to its essence, or a purity that had shed any unnecessary exaggeration. I aspired to it but can’t say it came naturally to a passionate, hot-headed young musician. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, that aspiration drew me to my professor at the Royal Academy of Music, Hamish Milne.
There must have been a bout of ear infection going around the staff when I took my entrance exam at the RAM as I was awarded a scholarship that gave me the chance to a request a teacher. I remember playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 109 at my consultation lesson with Hamish. There was an integrity, a sincerity and a pragmatism about his teaching that I found instantly appealing – a suitable foil for my unfocused albeit intuitive musicianship.
I studied the piano at the Royal Academy of Music with Hamish Milne between 1994 and 1999. I’m sure my love of music was never in doubt – and I hope infectious. Certainly, I was easily seduced to join myriad chamber music groups and my enthusiasm for that repertoire likely smothered some of the attention I should have offered my solo playing. I was ultimately more fascinated with music than playing the piano, particularly the collaborative aspects of music: the discussions, rehearsals and coffee appealed to me more than the solitary hours, weeks and months of dedicated practice (and coffee).
Hamish, however, seemed to relish the challenge of meeting students on their own terms, ’I don’t really have a method, I listen to what the students do and I try and help them to do it better’. In fact he would often say, ‘That’s fine but could you just play it… better!’. Hamish wasn’t a teacher who would take you under his wing. He was someone who would watch the clumsy flapping of first flight and then coax out something more streamlined, which might allow you to soar. The environment of listening and being listened to is one of things for which I am most grateful, although I did realise it in retrospect. I’ve found from personal experience that some of the brightest lightbulb moments as a musician have come as ‘souvenirs’ – a suggestion, observation or piece of advice that suddenly clicks into the cranial cog years later.
I’m fond of the image that a teacher’s raison d’etre is to hold the door open and allow the pupil to walk through. I’m not sure I always had the self-discipline to walk through myself; sometimes I had the impression that Hamish was standing waving me on and I would remain rooted at the threshold. Despite my off-piste diversions, I taught myself to revel in the possibilities offered by the piano. Clearly Hamish was far more precocious than I was, but he similarly described brilliantly his love for the piano as ‘access to music’, explaining how he had played through orchestral and opera scores as a teenager, hungrily devouring the music that excited him. For him the keyboard was the portal to those different worlds.
Hamish’s passing in February this year had a strong effect on me. I was in the middle of a rehearsal for an evening concert at St George’s in Bristol when I heard. I can’t pretend to have known Hamish on a very personal level, but I’ve not met many people who exude so much musical honesty and humility. His slightly gangly frame was easily distinguishable in the corridors of the Academy and I had the impression that he commanded respect from all. His laconic remarks were peppered with a sharp wit that he sometimes deployed in the face of falseness or hubris, rather like a stealth missile, hushed and devastating. Physically his technique was as deft as his musicianship. Nothing was ever too much or too little, but there was a concentration, a distillation of expression that I still find awe-inspiring. A taste of the ‘Second Simplicity’ perhaps.
The unchecked growth of the music industry over the past 20 years with the advent of the internet and streaming platforms has in some senses kept it alive and in others… not. For all the wonderful accessibility that is on offer I wonder if it hasn’t diluted our discernment, broadened the palate but numbed the tastebuds a little. I mention this only because it saddens me that certain players are overlooked. In the twilight zone of lockdown, I have started to listen to music again. Life is often flooded with music but recently there has been a void and recorded music has flowed in to fill it. It’s probably been years since I’ve pulled a piano disc off the cyber shelf but hearing the news of Hamish’s death, I felt curious to start listening to his records again.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I listened to all the Medtner discs, the Schumann and Weber sonatas, his early Reubke sonata release and the later Bach transcriptions. Time and again one reads a review of Hamish ‘wearing his virtuosity lightly’. It is the intimate playing that touches me most. The simple but delicate matching of one note to the next is the most magical element of great piano-playing, more so than the quick-silver brilliance or the thunderous waves of quasi-orchestral writing. Hamish’s playing demands to be heard and demands patience of the listener.
I will remember him as someone who searched for purpose, clarity and purity of expression, who valued exactness, be that the perfect amount of spice in a dish or pigment in a colour. I remember him talking about Rachmaninov’s philosophy of structure and form, that each movement should have a single point of climax and in each section of the movement there should be a focal point – a bit like a set of Russian dolls. I find this apparent paradox fascinating, that a figure so closely associated with an intense ‘romanticism’ should have been so classical in approach but you can hear that in Rachmaninov’s playing and in Hamish’s too.
If these disquieting days have rudely forced us to wake up and notice the small things, the quiet things, the tiny but intrinsic pieces of life’s jigsaw puzzle, then it will have been a great lesson to us all. Hamish was one of those artists who spoke softly but rewarded those who listened with an eloquence, a vibrancy and even an urgency, which is something he shares with one of his heroes, the jazz pianist Bill Evans. Through his recordings he still practises and preaches the art of listening. He was a deeply personal voice that will not be forgotten.
‘I would like to be able to play the piano like Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal; but then I would also like to be able to sing like Flagstad—some things are just not possible' (Hamish Milne)